Robin C. Williams is a pediatrician, a former medical officer of health and a past president of the Canadian Paediatric Society. Jean Clinton is a child psychiatrist and was education advisor to Premier Kathleen Wynne.
As families across Canada move into another extended period of suspended life, it is time to pause and acknowledge that many of them are not okay.
We’re in a marathon, but we don’t know whether we’re at mile four or 14. And we’ve never been on this route. We continue to consume a daily media diet of human tragedy and loss, along with business and economic collapse. We’re still worried about lives and livelihoods with a collective anxiety that none of us has experienced before.
We’re isolated in our family units, and on the frontlines are parents, whose approaches, concerns, and expectations are as varied as the complex situations in which they find themselves. Parents who are not working have financial concerns. Parents who are still employed are either doing some form of essential work or working from home.
Depending on their children’s ages, parents are either providing child care or homeschooling while they work. Every activity has been cancelled, many outdoor spaces are off limits, and each essential outing requires planning and coordination. Many parents are helping older relatives with daily tasks like groceries. Add to this the abrupt stoppage of the many services and supports for children with special needs, and the result is an unsustainable level of stress.
The federal government’s focus on health first and the economy second is not only right-minded, but science driven. But as science evolves, we are learning that kids do not get a free pass from COVID-19. While rare, pediatric disease is being described. At the same time, provinces are starting to phase in school openings, with various safety messages and plans, leaving parents to decide whether their children should attend or not.
But until isolation and distancing measures can be loosened, and schools safely accessed for all children, we need to ease the burden on parents. And the external drivers of much of this stress – workplaces and the education system – must do their part. Parents doing home-based work are struggling to produce at pre-pandemic levels, while parenting and teaching off the sides of their shared desks and often sharing a computer. The list of expectations, online curriculums, assignments and school-based meetings with multiple children of various ages can be a scheduling nightmare. This is especially challenging for parents of school-aged children under 10, preschoolers and children with special needs. For parents who are doing essential work outside the home, homeschooling takes on a whole other dimension.
School systems at all levels – starting from Ministries of Education – need to publicly reduce the assignment-driven pressure on both students and parents. Employers need to support parents in the short-term, re-examining expectations and ways of working, so these employees can return to work with their mental health intact. The longer we remain in a collective lockdown, the more of a toll it threatens to take on parents’ health.
Learning is lifelong, and a few months of incomplete schooling will have a negligible effect on most children. They will eventually learn their multiplication tables and the French word for “happiness.” When kids finally gather safely again in schools, each of them will be at a different place. And trained, compassionate, caring professionals will be there to help each one of them.
A parent’s job today is not to homeschool; it’s to stay connected. Kids who are emotionally secure will learn better. There are a lot of lessons in what we are going through together, and many of them are on the homefront.
Parenting self-care is just as important as parenting. Parents need time and space to deal with feelings of anxiety, or anger, or frustration, or sadness – all of which are normal in the face of so much togetherness.
Parents need freedom to distance from electronics. Maintaining work, school, and social connections requires inordinate amounts of screen time. Employers can help by making it clear to parents that telework does not mean 24/7 accessibility, and that the expectation to produce during a time of crisis is different.
In the end, we will all cross the finish line of this marathon. For some, it will be easier and the recovery time will be quicker. But we will create a new normal in our schools and our workplaces, together.
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